How “monument men” survey Michigan’s land


Professional surveyor Jeremy Pipp uses a Total Station, an electronic theodolite (transit) integrated with an electronic distance meter, to measure angles and distances.

LANSING, Mich (WLNS) – The early work of Michigan’s “monument men” was critical to laying out the boundaries of land throughout the state.

Early land surveyors systematically divided Michigan into a grid of 1-mile squares, marked with wooden corner posts at half-mile intervals, following a north-south meridian, an east-west baseline, township lines, range lines and section lines.

The posts – known as monuments – would be the basis for documenting ownership of land and establishing cities and villages, roads, streets, bridges and the boundaries of public and private lands.

It wasn’t uncommon for surveyors from southern Michigan to make their way to the western Upper Peninsula by walking to Saginaw Bay, where they’d catch a steamer to Sault Ste. Marie. There, they might hook up with a canoe-paddling voyageur for a ride west before walking inland to commence their surveying work.

The commute was made even more rough because Michigan was vast, forested and swampy with no roads, no GPS and no easy ways for the surveyors to get where they were going.

“The logistics of what they had to do to survey some of the areas of our state is just amazing,” said Jeremy Pipp, a surveyor with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who is based in the U.P. town of Norway. “You’ve got to appreciate these extraordinary individuals, enduring these hardships, and completing their assigned work.”

State surveyors are responsible for finding and re-marking the sites of the original boundary monuments put in place during the 1800s.

DNR surveyors mark, or blaze, nearby trees by inscribing them to provide measurements as to how far they are from monuments. These “bearing trees” or “witness trees” help surveyors locate the monument again when needed. All the information is recorded in the county Register of Deeds’ office.

“It’s a nice mold of art, science, archaeology, mathematics and geometry all mixed into one,” Pipp said.

These days, Michigan’s state surveyors use a combination of old-school and modern techniques. Surveying has continued to evolve to use GPS, and some surveyors are using technology such as drones.

Michigan’s grid of townships, ranges and sections originates from a location between Ingham and Jackson counties at LAT 42.422854000000001 LONG -84.364743000000004.

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